A year ago, and one week after the launch of Sandstorm, Daniel Pipes launched another website: Campus Watch. How well I remember. My endorsement of Campus Watch appeared in its first press release, and since Pipes happened to be traveling in Canada, I was the one who got inundated with calls from journalists asking just what Campus Watch intended to do. I dodged the question: I had endorsed Campus Watch on trust, without knowing the direction Pipes would take. I knew only that he had invoked my book, Ivory Towers on Sand, as inspiration for the project.
It wasn’t long before cries of McCarthyism rolled across the land, as a result of the website’s opening gambit: listing a number of professors with especially egregious records. It was a wild start. But a year later, and looking back on it, I can say with certainty (and relief) that my trust in Campus Watch was vindicated. After the initial wave of publicity and protest, it dropped the list of professors, and began to provide two invaluable services to the public.
First, the website has scoured the press, posting everything related to the Middle East politics of American academe. Until Campus Watch, such material accumulated only in the files of organizations and universities. Since Campus Watch, it has been available to anyone. This has made the site immensely popular, to judge from its ratings. And since the Campus Watch site refers traffic to Sandstorm (instead of posting), I know from my own tracker that many of its readers come from universities (dot-edu domains). I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most people in Middle Eastern studies rely on the site to follow debates about their own field and Middle Eastern matters on campus.
Second, Campus Watch has conducted and published its own research. Many academics feared that Campus Watch would be engaged in espionage in the classroom, because it invited students to send it information. But while students may have helped to alert Campus Watch to problems, the published research of Campus Watch over the last year has been based upon the on-the-record speaking and writing of the professors themselves. The research has been solid and well-documented—the same sort of rigor I try to practice in this column.
In sum, Campus Watch has provided a real service and met a genuine need. And regular visitors to the site cannot but reach the conclusions that animated its launch: first, that the American campus has become an arena in which some professors openly propagandize on Middle Eastern issues; and second, that Middle Eastern studies—the supposed bastion of objectivity—are no exception. Indeed, on some campuses, they are the heart of the problem.
Over the year, I was often amazed by the way some academics and students played up the “menace” of Campus Watch. This reached a disgraceful culmination at York University in Toronto, where a university research center disinvited Daniel Pipes on the spurious grounds that Campus Watch somehow threatened academic freedom. It reached a comic apogee in the completely bogus claim by a UCLA professor that he had been listed by Campus Watch—a crass bid for the sympathy of his fellows. Those criticized by Campus Watch suffered, at worst, bouts of email spamming (quelle horreur!), but charges of McCarthyism and cries of “Down with Campus Watch!” became the convenient rallying cry for a wide range of campus opportunists and poseurs.
The fact is that Campus Watch plays within the rules of legitimate give-and-take. Its gloves are off, but it doesn’t slug beneath the belt. And it more than proved its worth in its first year. That’s because in the build-up to the Iraq war, many professors said and wrote things that perfectly exemplified their complete detachment from the realities of the Middle East and American politics. The statements that caught the headlines—such as the hope expressed by a Columbia professor that “a thousand Mogadishus” befall U.S. forces in Iraq—were not isolated blurtings by way-out extremists. They were extrapolations of ideas and arguments generated by professors in Middle Eastern studies. Thanks to the reporting of Campus Watch, it was possible to see patterns in this patter.
The next step for Campus Watch is to move beyond criticism to foster new alternatives within Middle Eastern studies. Students often write to me, asking where they should study to escape the rigid conformism of the field. The question has no easy answer, but I intend to formulate one, and Sandstorm will be making some endorsements this year. Daniel Pipes, who has taken a seat on the board of the United States Institute of Peace, is now positioned to legitimize and support alternatives in scholarly research. Campus Watch has set its ultimate goal as “the improvement of Middle Eastern studies.” Achieving that will take more than watching for bias. It means watching for promise too.